You Say Tomato…

Or How I Learned to See Every Couple as the Odd Couple

You Say Tomato…

This article first appeared in the May/June 2009 issue.

Whenever we fall in love with another person, whatever his or her special qualities, we inevitably get the whole enfolded package—not only what’s pleasing or beautiful, but the imperfections and problems. We fall in love with dark eyes, a wayward curl of hair, and eventually discover we’re stuck as well with the shifting sexual energies, the inexorable wear and tear of the mortal body. Sooner or later, however we might wish it otherwise, we find our partner has personal limitations, disagreeable creature habits, constitutional appetites we don’t share, an inborn temperament that may start to wear against our own. The question we face then is how much either of us can rejigger certain fundamental aspects of ourselves to accommodate the other.

As a therapist, I took a long while to acknowledge this obvious reality of life and to see how that affected the work of couples therapy, particularly the issue of temperament. Temperament is a function of the range of capabilities in our animal body, a range we share to some extent with other mammals. You could call it our animal spirits, perhaps considered more prosaically as a neurological system: spirits that can be naturally fast or slow, rhythmic or arrhythmic, spirits that welcome excitement or avoid it, that approach or withdraw in the face of new things. One of the visiting cats in our home comes in every morning while we shower, to sit in the misty room and comment in sociable nipping sounds on how well we brush our teeth. The old home cat, meanwhile, sulks in the back bedroom—The Mad Woman in the Attic, we call her—this retreat her only way to cope with her perceived loss of safety.

Psychologists, pros and amateurs alike, betray an irrepressible penchant to catalogue these temperaments. We duly note the slow-to-warm-up child, comparing its style with that of the child who forges ahead without considering the consequences. We observe the way one person is speedy, or easily upset, while another pokes along with barely an anxious glance to the left or right. We notice differences in perception and organizational traits, pointing out people who trust their own senses—how things look or feel or taste—in comparison with people who would override the sensorium to trust only their own unsentimental thinking. Or people energized by being around other people vs. people drained by social interaction, who seek solitude to regain themselves. I remember a couple who argued about whether the husband had the right to look first at the mail when he came home in the evening; he felt he needed the quiet time with the mail before he could reenter the swirling household.


And of course there’s the category of people who want to get things ticked off a list, who invariably get partnered with people who want to sit back and consider all the options. I’m reminded of the familiar joke—it’s a wife’s joke, you’ll see—about the woman who describes how she and her husband divide up their duties: “Wally sees to all the really big projects, like how to bring peace to the Middle East and what to do about global warming, while I handle the small things, like the kids and the house.”

I began to see how much time couples spent, not only berating each other for things they couldn’t change, but making contrasts in temperament into negative stories about how the partner wouldn’t change. It seems that we incorporate the dilemmas and struggles and inborn constitution of our partner and too often come to think it says something—invariably something negative—about our own unfortunate fate in this life. As the self expands into the field of the couple, we begin to depend on the relationship to provide security. And instead of what we feel we so richly deserve, we get this particular, limited human being, a person stuck in the entryway, reading the mail.

I’d known Carla for only several months, but I knew well the look she gave me as she and her husband, married now for 12 years, sat on the green sofa in my office. The husband, Dennis, was defending an outburst of his that had spoiled their Saturday night. He was an impatient man, short-fused. Her look, just the tiniest roll of the eyes while she sighed, signaled her aversion: I didn’t know, she telegraphed, he’d be such trouble.

We had to go over the events: she said this, he said that. Saturday night, he’d become irritated when she’d asked if he was certain he knew the route into downtown Philadelphia. He’d been insulted. The insult swelled into a rant. He defended his outburst—the provocation he had to endure, the willful criticism from Carla, unacceptable coming at the end of such a long, hard day. Then, naturally, we heard a little speech from Carla, about how she’d come to be burdened by Dennis’s upset: he was irrational, while she was the soul of steady pragmatism; he was sensitive and sullen, while she cultivated good cheer. Or so it seemed to her.

He said she was rigid and picky and narrowed by mundane tasks. He was the one to have exciting visions for the two of them. He was the one to imagine that adventurous Saturday-night trip to the opera in Center City. And while she was the one to book the tickets, where would they be without his passion, his capacity to think outside the box? Each was asking the other to admire who they essentially were, yet here they’d ended up, looking at each other across a growing divide.


Perhaps only in theory can we observe our partners dispassionately. Perhaps our mindful gaze could rest upon our partner’s inherent temperament and think: Hmm, never wants to try a new food. And if we ourselves like only the tried and true, the same old turkey meatloaf, then we might just feel a cozy camaraderie sitting at the supper table, eating the turkey meatloaf, with its sweet baked-on layer of tomato catsup. But if one of us should say “I’m tired of it, I’d like to add spinach and cheese”—well, we’re asking for a more complicated relationship. Could we talk the meatloaf lover into trying something new? And would that be a good thing? Or would it be a good thing to let the meatloaf lover have the comfort and pleasure of the accustomed meatloaf? And which is an act of love—the acceptance, or the challenge? I can’t tell you.

What I can say is that here’s the lip-smacking moment, the ripening temptation to make the partner into a problem: for example, the problem with Matty is that she never wants to try new foods. She likes her routine. (“Too much,” we add.) All this judgment would be innocent enough, except that it seductively verges into right/wrong, good/bad. It seems the problem with Carla is that she gets anxious if she’s running late, and she makes Dennis wrong for not knowing the route into town. Then Dennis experiences in Carla’s rigorous observance of time a stubbornness about compromising—especially about compromising with Dennis, who’s sure that if Carla loved him more, she wouldn’t be so stubborn, etc., etc.

So there’s the rub: the vagaries of temperament between you and your partner can become part of a story you tell yourself about the lack of respect and love in your relationship. You are the belabored, long-suffering helpmeet, while Bozo over there is indifferent to his or her impact on you. Just this last week, I witnessed a big turnaround in a wife’s story of her own long-suffering labor with her husband. Talking with Toni about her husband two weeks before, I’d said, “Sounds to me like Joe has attention deficit disorder,” ADD being an example par excellence of the iron kismet of temperament.

Though Toni is a conscientious schoolteacher and has been married to Joe for 34 years, she was taken aback. She’d never considered that. But she immediately went out to buy one of the good books on adult ADD, read it in a couple of sittings, and then passed it on to her husband. “I want to thank you; it’s revolutionized our relationship,” she said. “All my anger just dissolved. I’d taken it all so personally—his disorganization, the way he gets overloaded, how he can’t stop himself when he’s deep in a project. He has a lot of trouble shifting gears.” This was the man who only two weeks before had been lambasted as hiding himself in work rather than taking care of a serious health condition—a chronic condition, involving frequent emergency care. Meanwhile the lonely responsibility for doctor appointments fell to Toni, unsung, unappreciated, all the while abandoned in a gaping fear for Joe’s life. “Makes me furious,” she’d said back then. “I’ve just about given up caring.”


“Could be he needs that structure,” I’d said, as Toni narrowed her eyes in cynicism. But now Joe was reading the book, discovering himself on every other page. I started to see a new path for these two: Toni freed from the demoralizing idea that Joe has callously abandoned her to lonely worry, and Joe with the space and hard knowledge to practice the lost art of appreciation. We’ll see.

Toni and Joe remind me how much being in a couple is a fundamental—fundamental—experience of otherness. No matter how much we love another person, differences in temperament provide each partner with the task of adjusting to someone who hears a different drummer, who moves at a different speed, who flexes or yields in reaction to stimuli, unfurls or contracts, gets interested or withdraws. These are all biologically based differences, and they require just as much understanding and compassion as the partner’s difficult childhood. They’re the differences that more than anything else provide the drumbeat to any relationship, an interplay of tempo and intensity, a two-person combo.

The couples therapist might not at first distinguish between the hard-wiring of temperament and its consequent effloresce, its blossoming into the idiosyncratic and personal features shaped by a specific life, family, culture, environment—a blossoming that we might label “personality.” When you’re a psychotherapist helping someone change, sometimes you’re dealing with the software of personality, and sometimes you’re coming up against the hardware of temperament.

With Dennis and Carla, we’d been exploring for several months the impact of their historical families on their current interactions—the way the persnickety wife stood in for the husband’s hopelessly tempest-tossed mother, or the way the excitable husband replayed the wife’s own anxious and helpless parents. These are all familiar moves to couples therapists, as many, many couples arrive in the therapy offices stuck in a hallucinated layer of coupling, in which the partner has mysteriously become . . . one’s worst fear. One or both partners have become entrenched in old battles they might have fought years ago with an offending parent—battles in those early days not taken up, because of their youth, their powerlessness, their innocence. But now those battles spring to life as unmet needs—injustices!—in the daily life of a couple struggling to depend on each other.


“Those parents!” I said to Dennis, “You both had difficult parents!” Carla nodded. “Dennis had a stormy mother, a yeller,” I pointed out, not for the first time.

“What do I know?” Dennis confessed, “I was raised by wolves.” It had been a revelation to him that some people lived in a house without doors slamming, mad accusations. These memories hadn’t helped his big-picture-loving impatience.

But I didn’t want to leave it here, as if we’d figured out the sole sources of their difficulties—coming from the feral Dennis and his ferocious wolf-parents. “Carla, you had an impossible job growing up—two anxious parents. You had to be the big girl.”

“They’re still anxious,” Carla said. It was true: both her parents felt entitled to worry and moan like fretful children, without a whit of understanding of how that weighed on Carla, a classic good but parentified kid.

“A thankless job,” I said. “Plus low pay.” We were all chuckling here. You might think we were only discussing their histories, reviewing the pathos of their lives. But I’d say we were doing more: we were extending the immersion of these two people in the parts of their differing temperaments—his speedy fuse, her steady seriousness—that, like it or not, were going to persist. It’s a soaking-in realism, equal-opportunity realism, both about their own ingrained and lively idiosyncrasies and about the idiosyncrasies of the other. You could think of it as a hanging out, a getting to know another person without the veils of illusion and hallucination that first enchant and then, in a likely downward sequence, dismay. Past the sparkly feelings, past the dark paranoid suspicions—all projections, it should be noted, first of our hopes and then of our fears—we get to encounter the essential peculiarities, the temperament, the quiddity and suchness, of another human being.

When I first worked with couples, I don’t think I appreciated how central to the work of relationship it is to tolerate a clear, direct experience of one’s partner. Or rather, I mistook that as the trouble-free part, what was left after the dust had settled: the other partner at last easily apprehended, warmly understood. So much of our couples work centers on how well a couple communicates with each other, how well they listen, how well they have empathy for the other partner’s bad breaks and old failures of understanding. If you define intimacy as “shared reality,” then we work hard to get the couple talking and sharing, so they can experience the steady contact of their beloved.


I used to think that once a couple had attained this intimacy, this shared reality, then—olly, olly, oxen free!—they were home, safe. Once they could understand their early experience and its impact on their current experience, once they saw how destructive these hallucinations were to a safe connection, then they could rest in the comforts of a steady, accurate appreciation of the other. Can it be I thought they’d live happily ever after?

Yet I continue to find that everything conspires to obscure the direct experience of another person, even one we cherish. Perhaps we should say, especially one we cherish. For one thing, there abides in daily life a constant stimulation, perhaps the way we get on each other’s nerves, the way we hook our partner’s judgment. We can be so keenly sensitive to missteps in keeping the bonds between us open and flowing that one or two little misunderstandings in certain relationships can restart a galumphing negativity. Or else, we’re not stimulated enough: we coast along in parallel tracks, a dead space in between.

A mishmash of temperament styles often muddies this in-between space, making it a place of over- or underreactivity. It seems we need a constant supply of curiosity to tolerate looking and looking again at the partner we think we “get.” More and more of the work I do encourages this open curiosity, slowing down one partner to “see” more clearly what’s going on, not only in themselves, but in the other; guiding another partner to “get in there,” that is, stop withdrawing and put some energy and presence into the space between the two.

A therapist might use the techniques of reflecting or mirroring for both the slowing down and the getting in there, because the important action is that the partners face in toward each other while noticing and regulating their own reactivity. The therapist reads and monitors the interpersonal space, noticing where the partners accept or reject the other’s presence, where they feel secure in their bonds of attachment or feel insecure and lost. The back-and-forth flow of energy here is governed not only by the couple’s skills and history with each other, but also by their history with other beloved figures. The interpersonal energy rises and falls with the animal spirits as well, the clashing or melding of one partner’s temperament with another’s. There’s a limit, then, to what can improve.


Sometimes partners are hardened to their disappointments. “Well, you know Lisa,” a guy named Walt lamented one day. “There’s no room for me, not even time to cuddle.” Walt wanted Lisa to be lighthearted and sexy—this from an unexcitable, practical woman on her way to becoming hard-bitten from years of managing a highly ungratifying child. And Lisa wanted Walt to overcome his disorganization and shifting energies to pitch in more with the intricate schedules of a household with two school-aged children.

Who could deny them these understandable wishes? Yet I thought, They aren’t going to get that from each other. I’d come to see that people aren’t as malleable as I’d thought they were, that some aspects of ourselves are just the way we are. A single woman, a person in charge of a highly politicized project at a corporation, came to this astounding conclusion not long ago: “The truth is, I’m a very willful person!” The look on her face was one of pure discovery. “And it’s not something to be . . . fixed,” she said with relief. “Maybe it’s a flaw, but it’s part of my constitution.” She’s a big believer in self-improvement, but now she was valuing realism about some central component of herself, valuing that knowledge over the anxious need to be ever-perfect.

Which is what I wish for Lisa and Walt, not to mention Carla and Dennis. That is, not only accepting the reality of ourselves, but also the reality of our partner. Because it’s an age-old question: when do we stop our efforts to change another person? We all know how it’s “supposed to be.” And yet, instead, we get this life—the sweetly bumbling husband with the grimly overcompetent wife. Or the vague and even-tempered woman partnered with the love of her life, a woman who doesn’t suffer fools, who taps her foot in agitation. The slob marries the neatnik. A speeding hornet partners up with a daydreamer.

It may be that every couple is The Odd Couple. Some observers say we marry people with traits opposite our own in order to fill some hole, some missing energy, in ourselves. But I’d add that by the time some people are deep in a long-term relationship, they’ll manage to shape even small differences into larger, more dramatic ones. I’ve sat in my office more than once and watched as two highly congruent people, similar in dress and values and speech, have soberly pointed out to me their dazzling polarity. The last incident, if I remember correctly, pivoted on an issue about time: “Bob never gets anywhere on time,” Bob’s wife said, a bit smug, justifying the feeling of always being let down; “I don’t know if we’re compatible.”


I can imagine loving a Bob even if he kept me waiting, just as I can imagine tapping my foot in impatience. Can’t we have them both, the tapping foot, the love? Bob’s wife might yearn for more contact with him—which we can work on in therapy. But to reduce the issue of Bob’s lovingness down to his lateness (or his sloppiness, or his inability to balance a checkbook) is a failure to see the man himself. The experience of an “incompatible” difference is then oftentimes a screen. Bob’s wife has narrowed her experience of him, a narrowing that avoids intimacy. And by intimacy I mean the opening into another person’s reality. Whether that would be Bob seeing his wife’s vulnerability, rather than her anger, or the wife seeing Bob’s wholeness, it’s hard to predict which move might come first. But it’s love in action.

A friend describes to me his sister’s marriage. He thinks the husband is distractible and self-involved and neglects his wife, my friend’s sister. “But she has no complaints about him!” He’s amazed. “She doesn’t need him to be perfect.” And we marvel over that, the generous sister, her self-involved husband. “That’s the ultimate coming-of-age life passage,” he says, “the cosmic understanding that while we may want the perfect companion—or what we think is the perfect companion—we don’t really need that other person to be perfect.”

At some point, the task for rest of us—like Lisa and Walt, Carla and Dennis, Bob and his wife—is to mourn what we miss in each other, grieve the absence of perfect mirroring, give up the egotistical identification with ringing atunement. We can’t protect ourselves from this bereavement: it’s existential, part of existence itself, our vulnerability to other people’s imperfections, other people’s realness. Then it seems that the encounter with difference, when freed of its “incompatibility,” its outrageous unfairness, might begin to stimulate our empathy and our generosity. It’s a lifelong exercise, living with difference—just the right antidote to what would otherwise be a life small and vain and fearful and filled with resentment.

Molly Layton

Molly Layton has been writing for the Psychotherapy Networker for more than 25 years. Her short stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and included in the Writing Aloud Series at the InterAct Theater in Philadelphia.